Goodbye to The Godfather: James Brown (1933 – 2006)

Steven Wishnia Jan 13, 2007

brown 1Dr. Martin Luther King was a James Brown fan.

In 1966, civil rights activist James Meredith – the first Black student at the University of Mississippi, admitted amid violent racist resistance four years before – was seriously wounded by a sniper after he embarked on a quixotic solo march through the state. Movement leaders vowed to complete the march, and Brown agreed to play a “freedom concert” at a Black college in Jackson.

The march marked a major split in the movement between King and the Baptist preachers, committed to nonviolent moral suasion, and the younger activists, such as Stokely Carmichael, who were raising the banner of “Black Power.” At an acrimonious meeting the night of the concert, King had had enough. “I’m sorry, y’all,” he announced. “James Brown is on. I’m gone.” (And he left with Carmichael.)

James Brown was a titanic talent, a creative avatar on the level of Louis Armstrong. How many musicians have been major figures in two genres (fifties R&B and soul), created another (funk), and indirectly fathered two more (hip-hop and Afro-beat, Nigerian Fela Kuti’s adaptation of Brown’s music)?

Brown began playing out in the 1950s in Georgia, where he often substituted for Little Richard, before scoring his first hit, “Please, Please, Please,” in 1956. Over the next several years, he built a reputation as “the hardest-working man in show business,” sweating off pounds at every show while leading a fiercely disciplined band (he was notorious for fining musicians for mistakes) on relentless tours of Southern chitlin-circuit clubs and the old vaudeville theaters of urban Black neighborhoods – including the legendary Apollo on 125th Street, where he cut three live albums.

All this was a prelude to his work in the late sixties and early seventies. Beginning with “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in 1965 and evolving through “Cold Sweat” in 1967 and “Lickin’ Stick” in 1968, Brown invented funk, taking the boogaloo riddims of soul and turning every instrument into a virtual drum, creating a neo- African interplay of percussive horns, choppy bass and chanking guitar while exhorting the band to “take it to the bridge” or “give the drummer some.” This period also was his most commercially successful, with six pop Top Ten hits.

1968’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” was a turning point. Over one of his funkiest grooves yet, Brown shouted, “Say it loud!” and a children’s chorus chanted back, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” (According to Brown’s autobiography, most of the kids were actually white or Asian.) The record would be his last pop Top Ten hit until 1985. Brown suspected that he’d been blacklisted by white corporate radio for being too militant; he also fell victim to the decline of the catholic, multiracial Top 40 radio of the ’60s and its replacement by segregated niche-market stations.

White radio slept through Brown’s most fecund period, the time of “Sex Machine,” “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” “The Payback,” and dozens more. From 1969 to 1974, he had 40 songs in the R&B Top Ten. These records not only exemplified funk: their beats (especially an instrumental called “Funky Drummer”) and Browninspired grooves by other artists provided the building blocks for the new music gestating in the South Bronx. It’s impossible to imagine old-school New York hip-hop – and that means it’s impossible to imagine hip-hop, period – without James Brown. Aside from his indirect influence, Brown’s records were the music for crucial tracks by Public Enemy, Eric B. and Rakim and Spoonie Gee.

“I used to shine shoes in front of a radio station. Now I own radio stations. That’s Black Power,” Brown said during a televised show in Boston the night after Dr. King was murdered. But his entrepreneurial vision led to his stupidest political move: endorsing Richard Nixon for re-election in 1972. The resultant boycott cut attendance at some of his shows by more than 80 percent. Brown said he was motivated by Nixon’s support for “Black capitalism”; it was also rumored that the endorsement, like that of future Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, was a quid pro quo to get the IRS off his back. (If that story is true, then Nixon double-crossed Brown; within a year, the IRS would dun him for $4.5 million in alleged back taxes.)

Brown’s career declined after the mid-’70s; there wasn’t much room for raw funk in the era of slick, bland disco and corporatepayola radio. He eventually achieved elderstatesman status, with a four-CD box set (Star Time), props from the hip-hoppers who sampled him and music geeks lionizing his once-faceless supporting cast – Clyde Stubblefield, the getting-wicked “Funky Drummer” and Jimmy Nolen, who developed the polyrhythmic chank that defined funk guitar. But Brown didn’t handle it well; his latter years were marked by a succession of arrests for domestic violence and drug-fueled car chases.

Still, Brown’s legacy is unstoppable. Last summer, I was in the subway when I heard an unmistakable James Brown groove, a track from the 1967 Live at the Apollo Vol. 2 album. Nearly 40 years old, it sounded fresher and livelier than anything else around.

There was a dance
They call the jerk
Everybody relax
And watch me work.

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